An Alma College first-year student’s toxicology report was released on March 20 following his autopsy. The circumstances of the student’s death led professionals to address the dangerous combination of cold temperatures and underage drinking.
The toxicology report stated that the student’s blood alcohol content [BAC] was 0.115. According to the Michigan State Police, 0.08 is the legal limit for BAC while driving.
According to the Alma City Police Department, the student was last seen alive at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 12, at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon party. His body was found at around 12:25 on Tuesday, Jan. 14.
This case draws attention to the dangerous combination of alcohol and cold temperatures as Michigan thaws out of one of the coldest winters on record.
Both Albion and Alma are private, residential liberal arts colleges with active Greek communities. The similarities between the schools have prompted some at Albion to take pre-emptive measures to avoid a similar case on campus.
Kiernan Gamel, substance abuse specialist at Albion College’s counseling services, recognizes the danger cold temperatures pose to drinking students. Gamel has been a substance abuse counselor at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirago, Calif., and also oversees drug-counseling programs for several Michigan prisons.
“Most people are under the misconception that alcohol keeps a person warm,” Gamel said. “The opposite is true. When a person drinks to the point of intoxication, the blood goes to the surface and allows the core body to lose a lot of the blood temperature from the blood. The core gets colder.”
This rush of blood causes the warm feeling when one is under the influence of alcohol. However, feeling warm and one’s body actually being warm are two different things.
“Blood takes the heat away from the core of your body, so while it feels like you’re warm because your skin is warm, your vital organs aren’t as warm as you’d think they were,” Gamel said. “Plus, alcohol has this numbing effect. You become disconnected from your ability to gauge how you’re doing physically.”
Gamel warns that this lack of awareness can lead to harm from exposure to cold temperatures, given that this winter has seen cases of frostbite develop with only minutes of exposure.
Hypothermia sets in when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Gamel believes that deaths from drinking can be prevented by the students themselves. This is not at all to say that he blames students for their deaths. Rather, Gamel takes a preventative approach.
Gamel brought the Red Watch Band program, a death prevention program, to Albion. Established in 2008 at Stony Brook University in New York, the Red Watch Band program’s goal to prevent student deaths from toxic levels of drinking.
“One of the biggest assets Albion has is the concern and care we have for each other,” Gamel said. “The student body is really close. The Red Watch program capitalizes on students caring for other students, which I thought was a perfect fit for Albion.”
The Red Watch Band program at Albion consists of 22 students who are trained to monitor their peers in high-risk drinking situations such as instances of suspected alcohol poisoning or dangerous levels of intoxication. The students are trained in how to intervene and de-escalate situations when other students have had too much drink.
Gamel added that students are also trained in CPR. The participants are encouraged to wear a red watch when they are actively assuming the responsibility of caring for other intoxicated students.
To Gamel, the program’s strength lies in its focus on harm prevention over drinking prevention. This allows more students to reinforce attitudes about responsible drinking, rather than polarizing students into abstinent and drinking groups.
“It’s not a program in which peers discourage drinking,” Gamel said. “It’s about students who want to volunteer for a campus program that just monitors their peers in high risk situations where they see signs of a person experiencing either alcohol poisoning or being so intoxicated that they are not functioning very well or are at risk of death.”
Gamel hopes that the implementation of programs like the Red Watch Band will prevent further harm from irresponsible drinking habits. He concluded by reminding students that should they choose to drink, they should do so with a plan for how they and their friends can make it back to their rooms safely.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons